World News

03.02.13

The World’s Most Vulnerable Mayor

The first woman to run an Afghan city stars in a moving new documentary. But once NATO leaves next year, the Taliban will surely crack down on women like her, writes Janine di Giovanni.

This week, London’s Guardian published an interview with Afghanistan’s first female mayor, Azra Jafari. The 34-year-old—who unfortunately looks two decades older, a reflection of life for women in one of the world’s poorest countries, and one of the very few where women die earlier than men—is mayor of Nili, an impoverished and investment-needy town in the central Daykundi province.

“It makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman, what matters is that you do your work properly,” Jafari, who is called “Mr. Mayor” by the locals, told the paper.

My first thought, however, was that it does matter. After NATO troops depart in 2014, Jafari won’t be there anymore. Once the Taliban become part of the government—a likely part of any negotiation process—it’s doubtful they will allow a woman to continue in such a role. It is doubtful they will even allow girls to go to school. They will do much more than segregate parks and bakeries, which they are already doing.

My second thought was cynical. Was Jafari given this role simply as a way for the corrupt government to show Western financiers that Afghanistan is trying to make women’s lives better? To attract more “gender specialists” who will study them but do nothing to actually help them?

Jafari dismissed that idea, but hit upon a larger truth: “If our friends in the international community really made me mayor because I am a woman then they would have paid for the roads I built. Unfortunately they have contributed very little to the changes in Daykundi,” she told The Guardian.

Women like Jafari rarely get help from anyone in Afghanistan. For several months in 2001, I followed the Afghan fighters known as the Northern Alliance, many of them former mujahedeens infamous for their brutality of women, while they “liberated” Afghanistan from the Taliban. I was horrified by the conditions the Taliban had left behind in Kabul—mental asylums where women had been tied up and chained for years for having postpartum depression. But I was equally disgusted by some in the Northern Alliance and their treatment of women.

I will never forget one of the men explaining his logic to me: “Women who cover their faces are good and stay home. Women who don’t are whores and deserve to be treated as such. “ Hence, he said, he could grab such a woman and say, “You are mine tonight.” I will never forget meeting a tiny girl near remote Khoja Bahauddin, who unbelievably spoke English. She begged me to smuggle books to her. Eventually she got out of the country, which I fear is the only hope for someone like her to progress.

Today, many of those “liberators” are still around, running the country. And next year, when the NATO troops pull out, there will most likely be a whole new generation of women haters who will also hold power: the Taliban.

Afghan women, who got a slight taste of freedom, but not much, over the past dozen years of U.S. intervention, will be thrown back into the Stone Age. They don’t want their burqas back. And it’s up to the international community and the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan to start working on protecting them.

“Women are strong!” she shouted.

“The biggest problem facing women today—aside from illiteracy—is the lack of support,” Jamila Berekazi, a female police officer in Kabul whose female colleagues had been killed by the Taliban, told me at her office in the Central Afghan police headquarters. “It is always the intention of men [here] to keep women in their cages. To keep women down.”

Despite that, she gave me a thumbs up. “Women are strong!” she shouted.

I hope so. There are plenty of highly educated, intelligent, motivated women in Afghanistan who are desperate for change. They will try sorely to resist the impositions the Taliban might impose on them post-2014. But it is almost certain their voices will be silenced.

On several trips back to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, I met with many of them: businesswomen, human-rights activists, members of the government, token “generals” who were wheeled out to impress Western journalists (I met one supposed general who was never allowed in the field). There was even the governor of Bamiyan province, Habiba Sarobi, and Seema Ghani, a rather extraordinary single woman who had adopted seven children.

Ghani had been educated in London and was outspoken and funny, so she was a one-off. She had chosen to go back to her native Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall. As a liberal, educated woman, this was not exactly easy. One day, she organized an off-the-record lunch with her women friends, other powerful emancipated women who threw off their headscarves and talked openly about their challenges. One complained that her highly educated husband, who had lived in the West, insisted on bringing his second wife home. He was trying to make her accept this as “the natural thing that men do.” Another complained that while Afghan men were happy to have a single woman in her 30s or 40s as a lover, they would never marry them.

“These men are doctors educated in Germany or France, but at heart, they still want the 14-year-old from the village who cannot read or write,” one complained.

The businesswomen were bitter about the multiple challenges that faced them. It seemed that every corner they turned, there were massive obstacles to tackle. “The glass ceiling is very thick here,” one told me. “Women have to be exceptional to break it.”

On another trip, after spending a week with British soldiers getting shot at and tormented by teenage Taliban soldiers in the bloodiest part of Helmand province, the aptly called Sanguin, I met women who were training to make jewelry. It was part of a heroic attempt by a gutsy young Englishwoman, Sophia Swire, to emancipate women, create jobs, and boost the Afghan economy.

Swire set up the optimistically named Future Brilliance Afghanistan, which runs a training program so that women can stay at home and make jewelry and earn a living. It was encouraging to watch them. At the same time, I remember thinking that change had to come from deep within society, some radical shift of thinking, for anything to really work. It must come from the young.

But if the Taliban restricts them, they will not be allowed to flourish.

Right after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, I was walking down a Kabul street when some teenage girls in burqas stopped me. Giggling, they asked me about my long hair poking out of my headscarf and my lack of a burqa (they were still too frightened to take theirs off). They called the tattered blue garments from which their eyes peered out through net material “their prisons.” They asked teasingly whether or not I liked the film Titanic.

A few days later, the girls joined me and their father, who was an educated, thoughtful man who had secretly educated his girls during the worst of the Taliban reign, as we ate rice at their home. I begrudgingly listened to the soundtrack of Titanic, a big underground hit in Afghanistan then. I asked after his wife.

“She’s in the kitchen!” said the man, who knew Western literature and could speak good English, with a laugh. Sure enough, the woman was in the kitchen, and she would poke her head in occasionally to lay dishes on the floor for us to eat before scurrying back on her rubber shoes.

The father said it was her choice not to come out and meet us. But even if it was, how did such a fear get manifested?

That woman in the kitchen is a metaphor for what we must not let happen in Afghanistan. When the troops leave, we must not celebrate any victories. We must react with vigilance to the situation of women in Afghanistan.

Or they will certainly lose every minor—and hard-won—right they have gained in the past dozen years.